BWW Review: MAMMA MIA! Aims to Entertain at San Jose Stage Company
As the refrain of the title song goes, "My my, how can I resist you?" Well, I apparently am one of those rare creatures who is immune to the charms of the musical "Mamma Mia!", with which San Jose Stage Company (SJSC) is concluding its 2018-19 season. Evidently I'm in the minority as the show has been an international juggernaut by any measure, including running for 14 years on Broadway (e.g. longer than "Rent" and over twice as long as the original production of "Hello, Dolly!"). Seeing the new SJSC production, I have to admit I just don't get the show's mass appeal. On the plus side, it's refreshing to see a show created largely by women that focuses on strong female characters. The show also contains almost 2 dozen of the catchiest pop tunes ever written and is performed with a lot of gusto. If that's all you're looking for, though, why not just catch a concert by an ABBA tribute band? Or - better yet - stay home, put some classic ABBA on your iPod at top volume, grab a hairbrush for a microphone, and warble along with the Swedish quartet, improvising your own fabulous choreography along the way?
On the minus side, the show requires a higher tolerance than I have for groan-inducing jokes, song lyrics that make no sense when shoehorned into an alien context, coy faux sexual frankness, and vocal stylings that vaguely recall, but aren't a patch on, the peerless original recordings already seared into our collective brains.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, the basic plot is thus: Sophie, a winsome 20-year-old living on an idyllic Greek island circa 1999, has been raised by single mom Donna, but has never known who her father is. Discovering the names of three of her mom's lovers from decades past, Sophie tracks all three down (Who knows how?) and invites them to her upcoming wedding in hopes of determining which one is her birth father. Also joining the wedding party are Donna's two female best friends and former band mates. Much merriment and confusion ensue, accompanied by lots of singing and dancing, echoes of 1960's beach party flics, and seemingly endless double entendres.
The book is replete with groaners such as "I hope I have a chance to wrap my tongue around a little Greek. [pregnant pause as audience titters] I haven't spoken the language in years." Or, Donna's response when she is presented with a large check to cover the wedding costs, "That's enough to cover FOUR weddings [pregnant pause] and a funeral!" If that's your idea of sparkling dialog, you're gonna love this show. Me, I found it wearying after 5 minutes, let alone 2 and a half hours. It doesn't help how the songs are jerry-rigged into the plot. Some minor alterations to the lyrics help the introductory verses more or less fit the situations at hand, but subsequent verses often leave behind any attempt at relevance to the characters or plot.
Lest you think I'm being too harsh to a show that wants only to entertain, what I find most dispiriting is that too many of the songs are flattened into a chipper sameness. Despite ABBA's reputation as creators of musical cotton candy, many of their best songs actually have a deep undercurrent of angst and despair. Case in point, the song "Our Last Summer" is a hauntingly beautiful rumination on lost youth, containing plaintive lyrics like "But underneath we had a fear of flying, of getting old, a fear of slowly dying." In this show, it's presented simply as an anodyne remembrance of times past. The net effect is a lack of honest feeling that would ground the performances and help us empathize with the characters.
The production at SJSC is not without its merits, though the design elements are a little hit and miss. High points include scenic & lighting designer Michael Palumbo's stage floor beautifully painted to suggest a beach with azure waves gently lapping at its edges, and the sparkly finale costumes by Bethany Deal for Donna's reunited band in ABBA's signature blinding white. Not so successful are Donna's unflattering Act 1 costumes or the face-obscuring Venetian-style masks worn by the ensemble, presumably to signal when the actors are part of a generic group versus doubling as minor characters. The choreography by Keith Pinto (who also plays one of the potential dads) generally, and somewhat bizarrely, alternates between chaste calisthenics and sleazy grope & grind movement.
"Mamma Mia" is the kind of show that gives each of the main characters a chance to shine in the musical numbers, and the SJSC cast all sing and move capably. I don't think it's their fault that director Allison F. Rich has apparently encouraged them to impersonate cartoon characters hammering home every punch line. While I would like to have seen more grit from Adrienne Herro as Donna, she did convey a touching maternal bond with Allison J. Parker as her daughter Sophie, and made the most of her soaring Act 2 ballad "The Winner Takes It All." Sarah Bylsma did her best to inject some spark into her underwritten role of former band member Lisa. Mr. Pinto, Jeffrey Brian Adams and Noel Anthony as the 3 potential fathers all supported the women nicely without overshadowing them. After all, this show isn't really about the male characters.
Interestingly, the one knockout performance is being given by Ms. Rich as the other band member, Tanya. Admittedly, director Rich has given herself the best part as Tanya is the fun one, a middle-aged woman who will always delight in looking fabulous, knows who she is in this world, and maintains a disarming sense of humor about her own sexual power. Ms. Rich seems born to play the part and nails every line and gesture, finding endless shadings for what could too easily be a one-note character. She also manages to wear a succession of flamboyant costumes with aplomb and allure. I only wish that in her role as director of the production, Ms. Rich had guided her fellow actors to give such fully nuanced performances.
"Mamma Mia!" runs through Sunday, July 7th at the San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. 1st Street, San Jose, CA 95113. Tickets and further information available at www.thestage.org or by calling (408) 283-7142.
Photos by Dave Lepori